Is Democracy Dying?

Perhaps Chesterfield County is not a microcosm of America – but I argue it is a microcosm of much of America. And this is my view of the politics of this county of about 300,000 residents, and of what I contend has become a farce of democracy.

I don’t argue that the county is not functioning – it is. I don’t argue that the county is not growing and prosperous – it is. I don’t argue that necessary and essential public services aren’t provided – they are. But I do argue that the concept of a bottom up democracy, inclusive of the population, based on a rational, involved, and balanced representation that percolates the needs and values of the populace is not working. Democracy has failed.

What evidence is there for such a rash allegation? I offer the following, none of which should be a surprise to anyone, but which I suggest shows a pervasive, insidious, even dangerous trend, and a reality that bodes poorly for our future.

There is not a connectedness between people and their government, and as “all politics is local,” I suggest that a very little portion of residents can name one county supervisor, one planning commission member, or one school board member. The long history of good ole boy politics is still in place, as political power is handed off year to year, election to election, within a small group of political insiders. Representation can hardly be termed as diverse, and in no way represents the diversity of the population. Money talks far louder than the citizenry, with developer money and influence far outweighing any other aspect of community influence on public policy.

In a county of about 300,000, of which according to recent election tabulations show about one third to be Democrats, the county is almost exclusively controlled by a Republican Party stranglehold. Seldom does new blood enter this picture and the hurdles to entry are onerous. Can anyone argue that the best and brightest, the fairest and wisest, rise to these governing positions? Certainly not when it becomes prohibitically difficult to raise the huge amounts of money to campaign, to face the public vetting that is so onerous, or to make the personal sacrifice that seems so daunting when one has no personal vested interest in running.

A handful of Republicans pick their candidates, a handful of Democrats pick theirs. And on a broader view, blatant gerrymandering by the party in power and the enormous power of incumbency insure both dominance by the powers in place and erect extremely difficult barriers to anyone challenging that entrenched power.

The last primary election resulted in only a three and a half percentage turnout of the electorate – the fact that the community has basically yawned at this enormous embarrassment is indicative of my argument. Apathy, political apathy, is so widespread as to be endemic. More broadly, the intrusion of church into state affairs is seen indifferently. And the vision of an idealistic, romanticized, and historically founded view of democracy, has evolved into a plutocracy

I do not mean to malign our current representatives, most I’m sure are decent people. I do though view this Malthusian evolution over decades to suggest that the county operates more as a corporation than as a public government, and that the error is in ourselves. Lack of individual involvement in the process only leaves a large and attractive vacuum that is eagerly filled by developers, by those who economically benefit, and by those who have the larger vested interest in the system being their exclusive province.

Schools inadequately prepare youth to both recognize their citizenship responsibility and to motivate them to this citizenship. The media poorly reports and poorly informs the public of the reality of their government. And the lack of a structure that allows the average 60,000 citizens, who are represented by each member of our board of supervisors of this one county, to have a readily available, receptive, and “user friendly” route to express their ideas, needs, values, concerns, and vision, creates an inevitable disconnect in the democratic process.

The result. The result is that there is a rapid and rampant commercial development, a crowding of roads and schools, an inadequate provision of the quality of life opportunities that a population of 300,000 should enjoy. The result is that social problems fester, and are obscured by the business and vested interests, such that the population disparities are ignored, festering divisions between race, and economic disparities are not addressed. Fundamental and underlying causes of crime, poverty, environmental health are left behind as more affluent, generally white families, move further and further west in the county and out into Powhatan. The gap between rich and poor widens, and meaningful, satisfying, and appropriate job opportunities become scarce. Continual migration of the fortunate and the affluent away from the disadvantaged happens – rather than a movement towards a more integrated, inclusive, and community focused demographic.

Now the reader may take this as just a diatribe by an old curmudgeon, but I hope that some may appreciate this as a call to participation and personal civic responsibility.


Doug said…
excellent article.
Rather than a desire for real public forums giving people legititmate participation and true representative democracy we have money and the monied in control of that process and it is as obvious as the nose on our face. Until the people with the money are not so under the power of money we will not have leadership willing to encourage and UPHOLD common people participation. As it is they just revert to their little "in" club of the monied, always so looking out for the interest of the monied first. This country most needs a new fire for people and principle over money and I hope we get it the easier way.

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